Nick Clegg: Britain’s ascension to EU was done ‘with a shrug of the shoulders’

Nick Clegg and Evan Davis, October 2015 by Newsnight

The former leader of the Liberal Democrats has been mostly quiet in the wake of his humbling general election defeat in May, happy to let Tim Farron steer what remains of William Gladstone’s party.

Yet Nick Clegg’s appearance on Newsnight this Tuesday showed the politician and former Eurocrat mulling on Britain’s future with Europe, in a rather mild manner for someone who fears the country may be about to make a grave mistake.

“I think the psychological, almost emotional circumstances in which the United Kingdom joined the then European Community were in many ways less emotive than say – if you were the founding member states Germany, France, and so on – peace over war.”

It is a favoured trope of British political commentary that we do not really do ideology, instead preferring to keep our heads down and stick to bean-counting, which many believe will have to be reflected on both sides of the referendum if they want to catch vacillating voters.

The “shrug of the shoulders” that Clegg refers to is also consistent with Britain’s historic commitment to constitutional fudge, as evinced in the lack of a central written constitution, the uneven devolution in the regions and many of the conventions that guide parliamentary life.

He never entirely answers the question of whether Britons feel closer to the Yanks than other Europeans, though there may be something telling in his description of “our cousins in America” – “our cousins in Europe” does not quite convince.

Though Clegg may well be right that leaving the EU could salt our diplomatic relationship with the Americans, it seems unlikely that Britons will ever think of themselves as “European” in the cultural sense implied when it is listed alongside “British” or “English”.

As such it means a vote to stay in the EU probably means a vote to stay in the second tier of the club, outside an increasingly unified eurozone. Whether that is a better option than leaving altogether will be the key question come the referendum.

Image Credit – Nick Clegg and Evan Davis, October 2015, screencap from Newsnight

Farron vs Lamb: What the Lib Dem leadership contest means for the party’s future

One would not have thought that the last month had left the Liberal Democrats with much of a party to squabble over.

On election day a healthy 57 seats in the Commons was reduced to a mere eight. The day after, the party leader Nick Clegg resigned, dejected and almost in tears. And some weeks later Charles Kennedy, who led the party to its greatest strength in Parliament in 2005, was finally toppled by alcohol.

It is therefore surprising that Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, the two men vying to succeed Clegg for the title of chief Liberal, spent much of the hustings at University College London on Wednesday talking about legacy.

Much of this naturally concerned the coalition. Lamb – who having served several roles in government has the greater claim to Clegg’s mantle – was keen to laud the last parliament in bringing about gay marriage, praising former MP Lynne Featherstone for her role in getting it onto the books.

Farron meanwhile looked like he was compensating for the distance between him and the more classically liberal “Orange Bookers”, many of whom set up the coalition in 2010. Almost the first words out of Farron’s mouth were in praise of “a great speech…from the lips of Nick Clegg” – a reference to that painful resignation the morning after the polls.

Both candidates also looked back to the last century, nodding at former Liberal leaders such as Jo Grimond (1956-67), David Steel (1976-88) and of course Kennedy himself (1999-06). “I’m standing in this election because I’m not having the party of Grimond, [former MP David] Penhaligan and Charles Kennedy die on my watch,” Farron insisted.

To be sure, few parties on the fringes of power can claim such a heritage. But whilst the history lesson was welcome to the many new members who had turned up for the hustings, it was the party’s future that had brought the crowd to Logan Hall just off Russell Square.

Lib Dem Hustings, UCL, June 2015

Source: The Right Dishonourable

Farron is indisputably the better speaker, his northern accent lending him an earnest streak that Lamb’s plodding tones cannot match. But more problematic for Lamb is the sense his campaign lacks the coherence of Farron’s, whose speech could be summed up in one phrase: “Inequality is wrong and inequality is immoral.”

Unlike much of Westminster, Farron has made his way to Parliament from genuine strife, having been largely raised by his mother following his parent’s divorce five years after he was born. Early life in Lancashire was what led him to label Margaret Thatcher’s premiership “organised wickedness” back in 2011, a position he hasn’t recanted since.

By comparison Lamb, a former lawyer, appeared on the night to poke at various interests without binding them together. Surveying the mostly white, middle class room he described the Liberals as “the least diverse party in British politics”, clearly forgetting that the Greens exist. “That is unacceptable and we need to change it,” he added.

This theme was echoed by Farron as the pair sought to cover the breadth of liberalism’s interests around diversity, the environment and schooling. Though the leadership contest may not be a battle for the party’s soul there still is a sense that Farron is the social democrat choice and Lamb the classically liberal one.

With only eight Commons seats, one might well ask if such a thing matters. As a Liberal Democrat pointed out to your reporter in a Whitehall pub some weeks ago, few outside of the Westminster Village care a damn who wrote what in the Orange Book.

Whoever wins, the party will spend much of the next five years picking itself up, deciding which direction to turn and getting back to effective local campaigning. As Lamb optimistically put it: “I can confidently predict this will be one election that is won by a Liberal Democrat.”

Header Image – Norman Lamb and Tim Farron by Keith Edkins, Edited by The Right Dishonourable

Fleet Street fights over leaders’ debate polls

Fleet Street, Josep Renalias

The famous partisanship of Fleet Street emerged in full view in the wake of Thursday’s leaders’ debate, which saw the chiefs of the seven main parties face off against one another in a first for a British general election.

As the dust settled on Twitter following the two hours of rumbunctious squabbling the typesetters of Fleet Street were already deciding how they would pitch the result to their readers, with the Sun’s splash perhaps the most controversial:

Toeing the same line were the folks at the Torygraph, who lived up to the nickname with the following front page:

Such partisanship is hardly unknown on the Street of Shame, with the Murdoch press infamous for their attack on Labour leader Neil Kinnock in the general election of 1992.

Even so, Owen Jones of Guardian fame was suitably aggrieved, himself taking Twitter to remonstrate with the Tory pressmen:

As Jones indicates, the polls were not quite as unfavourable to Milipede the Younger as could have been garnered from the lead stories in the Sun or the Torygraph. Not that the Guardian was completely innocent of spin:

Of course, as any statistician could tell you, polls of polls tend to be superior to any single ballot, mitigating for the bias of the question or slanted sampling that has yet to be accounted for.

Poll Natalie Bennett (Green) Nick Clegg (Lib Dem) Nigel Farage (Ukip) Ed Miliband (Labour) Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) David Cameron (Tory)
ICM 3% 9% 19% 25% 2% 17% 24%
ComRes 5% 9% 21% 21% 2% 20% 21%
YouGov 5% 10% 20% 15% 4% 28% 18%
Survation 3% 6% 24% 25% 2% 15% 25%
Average 4% 8.5% 21% 21.5% 2.5% 20% 22%

On that basis the most plausible “winner” last night has to be Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader whom none of the Tory press are too keen on owing to her desire to split up the United Kingdom, abandon Trident and turn Britain into a socialist utopia (etc).

Thankfully others have since picked up on the far more boring story – these TV debates appear to have changed little, and we are still heading for a parliament more hung than a Californian porn star.

Image – Josep Renalias

How Left and Right posture on health tourism

Politicians in Britain are fond of talking about “tough decisions”. Even on the Left, which is supposed to be the more generous wing, the Labour leader Ed Miliband was happy enough to declare his willingness to tackle “difficult” ones at the leaders’ debate on Thursday.

Why then, was there such a furore over Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s comments over health tourism? Having prefaced his view with the disclaimer that people would be “mortified” that he dare talk about it, Farage said:

“You can come to Britain from anywhere in the world and get diagnosed with HIV and get the retroviral drugs that cost up to £25,000 per year per patient. I know there are some horrible things happening in many parts of the world, but what we need to is put the National Health Service there for British people and families who in many cases have paid into this system for decades.”

A predictable backlash followed, with outrage on Twitter and attacks from the other panellists. At the time Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, said: “When someone is diagnosed with a dreadful illness, my instinct is to view them as a human being not consider what country they come from.”

This sounds nice, but it is hard to believe that any of the panel (bar Green leader Natalie Bennett) truly believe in not discriminating against foreigners when it comes to the health service. The alternative would mean offering free health care to all 7 billion people living in the world, which even the Greens would recognise as a bit ambitious.

That doesn’t mean that Farage’s interest in health tourism is not misjudged. In a country open to foreign travel and trade some health tourism is inevitable, or at least would be costly enough to clamp down on that it was not worth the bother. The figures he quoted in regards to HIV (7,000 diagnoses a year, 60% of them accounted for by foreigners) amount to a piffling addition to the health service bill, and the total cost of health tourism is equally piffling.

According to Farage the total cost of health tourism £2bn, a figure that is based on this research commissioned by the coalition. As George Eaton of the (leftwing) New Statesman pointed out at the time, this is not really true:

The £2bn figure refers to the total cost of treating foreign visitors and temporary migrants (such as students and seasonal workers), many of whom are eligible for free treatment and pay tax, not “health tourists”.

The report actually estimates the cost of health tourism at £70m. In the fiscal year 2013/14 the total bill for the NHS was £109.721bn, according to the NHS Confederation, a trade body.

In the end the controversy over Farage’s comment shows both sides posturing. The Left does not really believe that Britain should pay for the world’s healthcare, and the Right are not so bloody minded that they will pursue fraud at any cost.